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A Mine Disaster in Russia Highlights Safety Shortfalls in Rush to Dig Coal

MOSCOW — In the days before his death in a mine explosion in Russia’s coal-rich Kuzbass region, Boris Piyalkin lamented that the safety standards in his workplace were inadequate.

“He sat and cried, and was just scared,” said Anzhelika Piyalkina, the daughter-in-law of Mr. Piyalkin, who had spent three decades working as a miner but increasingly feared the conditions in which he was being asked to work.

Mr. Piyalkin, who was 55 years old, was one of 46 miners and six rescuers killed Thursday by the explosion at the Listvyazhnaya mine in Belovo, about 2,200 miles east of Moscow and two hours south of Kemerovo. The accident occurred after a ventilation shaft began filling with gas while 285 people were underground, according to officials.

Mr. Piyalkin’s wife, Inna Piyalkina, in a video widely circulated in Russian media, said he had reported that the methane levels at the mine “were going through the roof.” She added, “My husband came home from work every day and said it wouldn’t end well.”

The tragedy, the worst mining accident in Russia in more than a decade, was a reminder of the country’s poor worker protections and its increased reliance on coal extraction.

As Western countries seek to decrease the use of fossil fuels, Russia, which accounts for more than 16 percent of the global coal trade, is the third largest global exporter of coal, behind Australia and Indonesia. This year, Russia has increased production by 10 percent.

A video taken outside the mine showed grieving women who had lost relatives in the disaster walking along the snow in subzero temperatures. One woman says to another: “Everyone knew, everyone knew there was methane, and now what? We will get the bodies back, but will they give us back over 40 children, husbands and sons?”

Relatives of miners killed in an explosion on Thursday at the Listvyazhnaya mine, at the mine entrance on Friday.Credit…Rostislav Netisov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The director of the mine was taken into police custody, along with five other administrators. But prosecutors are also examining potential abuses by watchdogs who were supposed to inspect the mine for safety standards.

An unnamed official from the technical supervisory body that oversees mines in the region told Russia’s state news agency TASS that the mine’s methane sensor did not register an excess of the maximum permissible concentration.

Mikhail Y. Fedyaev, the chief executive of SDS-Coal, the operator of the Listvyazhnaya mine, said on Friday that the company would pay amounts ranging from 1 million to 2 million rubles, approximately $13,200 to $26,500, to the family of each victim who died, and 500,000 rubles to each person hospitalized because of injures sustained in the accident on Thursday, which followed a series of violations reported at the mine this year.

Rostekhnadzor, the government’s ecological, technological, and nuclear oversight body, has suspended work in sections of the Listvyazhnaya mine nine times this year because of various violations, the watchdogs’ spokesman, Andrei Vil, wrote on the messaging app Telegram.

He said specialists from the oversight body had conducted 127 inspections of various sections of the mine since the beginning of the year, identified 914 violations and fined Listvyazhnaya more than 4 million rubles.

One investigation by Rostekhnadzor in April 2021 noted multiple irregularities, including faulty methane sensors, a lack of sensors for early fire detection in one part of the mine, faulty doors in a ventilation structure, and employees who lacked training in the air-gas control system.

However, Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s main investigative authority, has also opened a case against local inspectors for alleged negligence. The committee has said that the two primary state inspectors whose job was toensure the safety of the ventilation shafts did not conduct a planned inspection and falsified a report the week before the accident that had said the site conformed with standards.

SDS-Coal is the third largest coal extractor and exporter in Russia. Mr. Fedyaev, the chief executive, owns 95 percent of its parent company, and his son Pavel is a representative in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, The father is one of the richest people in Russia.

A sign for the Listvyazhnaya coal mine. Credit…Rostislav Netisov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 2020, the company produced 28.2 million tons of coal, and plans to increase that to 32 million tons by 2035. About 97 percent of the coal is for export, but a spokeswoman for the company would not make its client list public.

Work at the mine has stopped until further notice, said Tatyana Dimenko, a spokeswoman for the facility. She declined to comment on plans to improve security for miners or whether anyone would be dismissed because of the accident.

Experts say that accidents like the one at Listvyazhnaya are inevitable as Russia seeks to extract as much coal as it can before it gets phased out as the country’s gradually switches to renewable energy sources. Between 2007 and 2017, Russia increased its supply of coal by a factor of five, and its exports to China 24 times, according to the economy ministry.

Coal prices reached record highs in October, and businesses have sought to capitalize on that.

“The reason Russia increased its coal export targets for the next ten years is that they were hoping to catch that window,” of increased coal demand by countries such as China and India, said Nicholas Birman-Trickett, an energy analyst covering Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The profit margins for the industry are high and growing because of the current energy crunches in Europe and China. However, Mr. Birman-Trickett said, because of the dim outlook for the long-term prospects for the coal industry, businesses and local governments have been reluctant to invest in aging, and therefore often unsafe, mining infrastructure.

“This is sheer carelessness,” Aleksandr Sergeyev, the chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Russian Miners told MK newspaper on Friday. “There is a problem of compliance with safety rules by owners and management. And now they are again shifting the blame onto the workers. This is a systemic problem when people will do anything for profit.”

In recent months, Russia has been struggling to export its coal fast enough. The Baikal-Amur railway, which runs from eastern Siberia to Russia’s Far East, is being expanded as one of the country’s biggest ongoing infrastructure projects, with the aim of exporting more coal.

Aleksandr Chupriyan, center, Russia’s interim emergencies minister, at the mine’s head office in Gramateino, Russia, on Friday.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

The Kemerovo region is home to half of the coal produced in Russia, as well as many of its worst mining accidents. In May 2010, 66 people were killed in an explosion in the country’s largest underground coal mine, Raspadskaya, which was caused by a buildup of methane.

The region has also been the scene of brewing discontent against the government, and local residents say that companies seem to be putting profit before the welfare of the people.

In March 2018, a shopping mall fire in the region killed 60 people, including 37 children. A court found that the mall’s owners and managers ignored fire safety rules to save money.

The event triggered an outpouring of anger against the national and regional government, including days of protest, prompting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to travel to Kemerovo to lay flowers at a memorial to those who died.

Today, the anger at companies and the authorities in the region is still palpable there.

“The company that needs only coal is to blame,” Inna Piylakina, grieving for her husband, told journalists outside of the mine. “Human life is not appreciated.”

Laying flowers on Friday at a memorial to the 52 miners and rescue personnel known to have died in the Listvyazhnaya mine a day earlier. Credit…Alexander Patrin/Reuters

Oleg Matsnev and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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